ST. LOUIS — There’s a cliche about managers putting their players in the best position to succeed. A corollary to that is having the best players in the right position, at the right time. Do those things as often as possible and you’re more likely than not to win, right?
Well, sometimes. The Red Sox tested this rule to its absolute limits in Game 3 and, while they got away with it for a few brief minutes, they didn’t for long. John Farrell eschewed conventionality and embraced chaos. But chaos would not cooperate.
It started out defensibly enough, with Farrell trying to get the best matchups he could in the top of the seventh. With Stephen Drew struggling mightily at the plate, Farrell sent Will Middlebrooks in to pinch hit for Drew. That didn’t work — Middlebrooks popped out — but hey, it made some sense. Farrell decided to keep Middlebrooks in the game, sending him in to play third, moving Xander Bogaerts to short.
Which is no real biggie. You gotta try to generate offense if you can. It just didn’t work out. And it makes sense to leave Middlebrooks in. Your roster is only so big, it’s a tie game and you can’t just burn position players. You carry on.
Then in the bottom of the seventh Matt Carpenter hits a ball to short. It’s not the easiest play ever. Bogaerts took a less-than-perfect path to the ball and didn’t square himself to throw it to first. Carpenter beats a throw that David Ortiz couldn’t dig out of the dirt. Maybe even a good first baseman doesn’t dig that out. But I think Stephen Drew makes that play more quickly and cleanly than the relatively inexperienced Bogaerts. Regardless, a runner is on first base.
After Carlos Beltran is hit by a pitch to put another runner on, Matt Holliday comes to the plate. He doesn’t tattoo the ball. It hits the ground not too far in front of the plate as it shoots down toward third and just eludes Will Middlebrooks’ glove. Does it elude Xander Bogaerts’ glove? I don’t think it does. It was so close and Bogaerts has that much of a better step at third base. We’ll never know, though.The ball kicked around the left field corner, two runs scored and the Cards took a 4-2 lead. Farrell, while not making any blunders, had less than his best in two critical places and it cost him.
And at that point, Mike Matheny had it all set up: the right people in the right position at the right time. Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal set to throw the eighth and ninth. We saw this in Game 2. We saw this much of the end of the season. Two young studs throwing near triple digits. A Boston team that has often seemed helpless against power pitching this postseason. Good. Night. Irene.
But then baseball happened. And baseball, no matter how much we think we know about it — no matter how much authority, earned or otherwise, we assert with respect to it — occasionally says “ha.” It reminds us that almost all predictions are just guesses. Educated guesses at times, but still just guesses because anything can happen. Balls get through a first baseman’s legs in Game 6 of the World Series. Near-cripples hit home runs off Dennis Eckersley in his prime. Nothing so grand as that happened here, but what seemed highly improbable became reality: Martinez and Rosenthal blew it. The Red Sox dinked, plunked and doinked their way back into a 4-4 tie. Take that probabilities. Chaos will have its way.
At this point I feel like John Farrell started to appreciate the power of chaos. And maybe began to think that he could use it to his advantage. Because at this point he seemed to embrace chaos with both arms and to eschew the notion of matchups and the ideal deployment of resources altogether. How else can we explain Farrell allowing Brandon Workman to face Matt Holliday in the eighth with runners on base when his best reliever — Koji Uehara — was sitting in the bullpen? But wait! It worked. Holliday flied out and the threat was over. And maybe it emboldened Farrell even more. What else explains Farrell allowing Workman — an American League pitcher, mind you, — to bat in the top of the ninth inning of a tied World Series game while his best available hitter — Mike Napoli — sat on his bench?
Hell, Farrell wasn’t just eschewing the ideal. He was rejecting the whole idea of the ninth inning mattering at all. Why else would he punt his team’s half of it so decisively? Why else would he head into the bottom of the ninth, on the road, against a team which seems to have more crazy voodoo working in its favor than any team, without using all of his weapons? And continue to do so, not even calling on Uehara until there was a runner on base.
Whatever his reasons, baseball’s unpredictable chaos decided it had led him on enough. It went back to wreaking havoc as it will, this time in the form of the most improbable demolition derby of a game-ending World Series play in recent memory. In a fielder’s choice/nailed at home/interference/walkoff win.
Going with the best matchups doesn’t always work. Embracing chaos doesn’t always kill you. But there’s a reason why managers usually play the percentages. They respect the power of chaos and do what they can to keep it at bay. And I bet John Farrell does so more regularly as long as this World Series continues.